Lucky charms

It hasn’t always been easy for Shamrock Robers but a famous European win has boosted the League of Ireland, writes Steve Bradley 

UEFA’s competitions are often derided as pandering to the needs of big clubs. While there is some truth in this, it ignores the fact that both the Champions League and Europa League group stages have featured entrants from most European nations. Those countries yet to feature are largely a roll-call of small islands, principalities and sparsely populated mini-states – with one notable exception. The Republic of Ireland has a population of 4.5 million people, a respectable international team and a history of talented players – yet it has made little impact on international club football to date.

The Irish game has been starved of resources and media attention at home for decades. Irish papers salivate over English and Scottish football, with little or no mention of the domestic scene. Sky Sports broadcasts to households in Cork or Dublin where kids talk about English teams as “we”. State-owned broadcaster RTE does show the occasional live domestic match – but largely because it is forced to under the international games contract. In return the home club receives €5,000 (£4,400) per airing – barely enough to cover the dip in gate receipts. This combination of media starvation and juxtaposition to the richest league in the world has given the Irish public a strange antipathy towards their own league. The Premier Division in Ireland attracts average crowds of just 1,500.

Yet despite all of this several Irish clubs have come close to reaching the group stages of the Europa League lately. Part of the credit for this must go to the switch to summer football in 2003. The early rounds of European competition fall in pre-season for most leagues. By playing from March to November Irish teams are fit and sharp when they face continental teams often just returning to training.

Last month an Irish team finally made the breakthrough. That Shamrock Rovers were the first to reach the Europa League group stages should come as no great surprise. They are the Republic’s most successful club, with a haul of 16 league titles, 24 FAI Cup wins and crowds of over twice the league’s average. But they’ve also had to endure their share of adversity too. In 1987, just as they had sealed a fourth league title in a row, the club’s owner suddenly sold their Milltown stadium to property developers and Shamrock Rovers became Ireland’s footballing nomads.

Rovers spent the following 22 years shuffling between five temporary homes across Dublin, with success largely eluding a club reared to expect it. The years ran into decades and Rovers struggled onwards, homeless and with dwindling support. Their lowest point came in 2005 when the club board embroiled itself in a needless High Court battle over planning permission. Another legal challenge then arose from a local Gaelic football club mischievously trying to stop Rovers from settling in their backyard. The club emerged from these tussles still homeless and over €2 million in debt. They were forced into administration, at which point fans stepped in to bankroll the club. When they discovered that the previous board had secured a league licence by falsifying accounts they alerted the authorities. The FAI’s reward for their honesty was demotion to the league’s second tier.

Out of this turmoil a new fan-owned club emerged for which fiscal prudence and a permanent home were key objectives. They bounced straight back into the Premier Division at the end of the 2006 season and by 2009 they had a new stadium in the sprawling suburb of Tallaght, thanks largely to the support of the local council.

Manager Michael O’Neill, a former Northern Ireland international midfielder, built a solid full-time squad on a limited budget and won the club’s first league title in 16 years in 2010. Qualification for this year’s Champions League resulted, with progress halted last month at the hands of FC Copenhagen. Transferred into the play-off round of the Europa League Rovers wanted a draw that would offer some hope of progress. When Partizan Belgrade’s name came out of the hat most feared the worst.

But a battling performance against a superior Partizan side saw Rovers deservedly draw 1-1 in Dublin through a suberb dribbled goal by Gary McCabe. In Belgrade a stunning volley by defender Pat Sullivan drew the game level at 1-1 in normal time before Stephen O’Donnell smashed home an extra-time penalty to seal group-stage qualification. The joy was palpable among fans of all League of Ireland clubs, previously conditioned to expect their European representatives to exit through heroic struggles against greater odds. Rovers’ victory in Belgrade has altered the landscape for Irish clubs at home and in Europe, and League of Ireland fans could sense it.

From WSC 296 October 2011